Primitive Thought

Chaz Bufe on misanthropy in Earth First! and the primitivist and radical ecology movements.

Submitted by ludd on May 31, 2010

One of the hottest topics in “progressive” circles these days is the Earth First! controversy. Prominent members of Earth First!, such as Dave Foreman, the organization’s founder and the editor of its newspaper, have recently undertaken polemics in favor of famine and AIDS.

In the Australian magazine Simply Living, Foreman stated that, “the best thing would be to just let the people there [Ethiopia] starve.. .“ He has made similar statements to the local media in Tucson, where Earth First! (the organ of Earth First!) is published.

In a similar vein, “Miss Ann Thropy,” a regular contributor to Earth First!, has argued that AIDS is a “good” thing, because it will reduce population. In the May 1, 1987 issue of that paper, ‘Throp” stated: “if the AIDS epidemic didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent one [an epidemic].” In the Dec. 22, 1987 issue of Earth First!, she adds that ... . the AIDS epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population.”

The connecting thread between the arguments in favor of AIDS and starva tion is a crude Malthusianism. (The 19th-century British parson Thomas Malthus argued in his Essay on the Principle of Population, that unlimited population growth was the primary danger to humanity; that population increased geometrically while food supply increased arithmetically.) A latter day disciple of the good parson, Daniel Conner, a “deep ecologist,” self-aggrandizingly expressed his faith in Malthus’ principle in the Dec. 22, 1987 issue of Earth First!: ‘Population pressure, they [“thoughtful environmentalists”] claim, lies at the root of every environmental problem we face.”

Contrary to what Conner would have us believe, there is nothing “thoughtful” in the belief that population “lies at the root of every environmental problem.” That idea is on a par with the simplistic belief that “technology” is the sole cause of environmental destruction. It ignores the key element in environmental destruction: Making a profit. For example, coal-burning power plants are a primary cause of acid rain, yet utilities have in variably put up resistance to installing scrubbers, which would greatly reduce the amount of pollutants emitted by their plants. The reason? Installing scrubbers would reduce their profits. Another exam ple: Plastic beverage containers become non-recyclable trash, are a visual blight, take hundreds, if not thousands of years to break down, and a particularly toxic type of plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is often used in their manufacture. (PVC5 leach into beverages.) Why are they used? The answer is what you’d expect: It’s cheaper and involves less hassle for bev erage manufacturers and distributors to use plastic bottles rather than recyclable glass. Still another example is the toxic waste problem. One reads almost daily reports of companies dumping dangerous wastes into streams and rivers rather than going to the expense of treating and pro perly disposing of them.

This tendency of the capitalist, profit-based system toward environmental destruction exists regardless of the size of the population. In terms of the profit-motive tendency toward environmental destruction, it would make no difference if the population of the United States was 24 million rather than 244 million. At the lower population figure, the motivation for beverage manufacturers and distributors to use plastic bottles, for example, would be the same as it is now. A large population magnifies the damage rooted in the profit motive, but population size itself is not "at the root of every environmental problem we face.”

The conclusions the misanthropic “deep ecologists” draw from their faulty premises are breathtaking. They want us to return to our ‘natural role” 1 as hunter-gatherers, because according to their faulty reasoning, “Earth simply cannot support five billion large mammals of the species ‘Homo sapiens.’” This argument has been demolished elsewhere; the best work on the subject is Frances Moore Lappe’s and Joseph Collins’ Food First. For our purposes, suffice it to say that there is actually a huge surplus of food at present. According to Lappe, approximately 3600 calories of grain alone is produced on a daily per capita basis.2 That doesn’t even take into account fruits, vegetables and grass-fed meat. This is enough food that, if the grain alone were equally distributed and all—or even two-thirds—of it consumed, most of us would be as fat as pigs. It should also be emphasized that production of this amount of food does not “necessarily” involve environmental degradation: Non-environmentally harmful, organic methods of agriculture can produce at least as much food as destructive, chemically-based methods in the short run; and in the long run, increase the “value” of land and preserve high levels of production.

In some of the European countries, notably Germany, population ‘decline” through lowering of the birth rate has already begun. In his article “Fertility in Transition,” in the Spring 1986 issue of Focus (journal of the American Geographical Society), James L. Newman traces the causes of the decline in fertility in the European countries. He concludes that there were three reasons for a decline in the birth rate. One was industrialization: “Out of it came the public health discoveries that reduced mortality, followed by a new lifestyle which no longer neces sitated large families... Whereas on farms and in cottage industries children contributed their labor to the family enter prise, in the city they became consumers. Only a few offspring could be afforded if the family was to maintain or... improve its standard of living.” The second reason for the decline in fertility was birth control. It “was the answer to these new social and economic realities.” 3

The third element in lowering the birth rate is the relative emancipation of women. In the developed countries, birth rates tend to be high only among econom ically deprived groups with little hope and relatively little access to birth control devices and information, and among patriarchal religious groups whose members believe that it is a woman’s “duty” to have a large number of children. (A case in point is the Mormon Church; among active Mormons, nuclear families with ‘at least’ four children are the norm.)

If there were a more equal distribution of wealth and income, and if misogynistic, patriarchal religions declined, the birth rate in the developed countries would almost certainly be lower than it already is; and if there were relatively rapid development in the ‘underdeveloped” countries,4 accompanied by redistribution of wealth and abandonment of misogynist religions and attitudes, fertility there would certainly decrease, probably quite rapidly.

The primitivists at least have the honesty to accept some of the conclusions of their Malthusian arguments. They acknowledge that reversion to our “natural role” of hunter-gatherers will require a massive depopulation of the Earth. For Miss Ann Thropy, “Ecotopia would be a planet with about 50 million people who are hunting and gathering for subsistence.”5 Other primitivists have postulated a population of only five to ten million as the maximum, and in Atlas of World Population History, Cohn McEvedy and Richard Jones state that the prehistoric population of hunter-gatherers was pro bably in the neighborhood of four million.

Other “neo-primitivists” (it sounds classier with the prefix) have advocated an agrarian society using no technology beyond that of simple hand tools. Reaching a ‘no-tech” agricultural society would involve almost as many deaths as reach ing a hunter-gatherer society. The last period in which a large majority of the population lived a pastoral existence, using for the most part nothing beyond hand tools, was the Middle Ages, when the world population was about 300 million. Let’s assume a technological level of the year 1500 (perhaps acceptable to no- or low-tech advocates), and that due to improved agricultural techniques, enough food could be grown and distributed to support five times the population that lived then. That would leave us with a population of 2 billion people (which would require a modest 60 percent reduction in population to achieve). Whether even this population figure could be maintained at that level of technology is highly questionable.

Historically, the ability to grow food has not been the limiting factor in population growth. The limiting factors have been disease and the related problem of infant mortality. Returning to the pre industrial technological level of 500 years ago would not only eliminate the ‘means” of combatting disease but also (relatively) safe, effective means of birth control. The birth rate would soar, and many women would die at an early age, worn out from childbearing. But not to worry— population balance would be maintained the way it was in the good old days: Most of the children would die from disease before adulthood; and if “enough” of them didn’t die, population would increase to the point where famine would stabilize the population.

Still another question never addressed by neo-primitive romantics is whether a majority of the population (let alone the entire population) would ever want to renounce the many benefits of technological civilization. I for one would not, whether we speak of music, food, medicine, or books. I doubt that my feelings are atypical. Returning to a low-tech or no-tech society would necessarily involve the use of coercion against large numbers of people, probably against a large majority of the population.

These are the implications which the primitivists and “neo-primitivists” have dodged until now, usually by insisting upon “natural” checks on population growth, such as the AIDS epidemic and famine, to achieve their desired hunter-gatherer society. They haven’t dared ad vocate what would really be required to achieve their vision: Wholesale coercion and mass murder.

If any good is to come from this controversy it will be that it has provoked many people to take a closer look at the questions of technology and population growth, and their relation to the prevailing politico-economic systems. One hopes that environmentalists will go beyond the crude theories and intellectual posturing of “deep ecologists” and those who blindly hate “technology”— the questions of population and technology require a more sophisticated approach than primitivism.6

The only way in which population growth can be checked in a humane manner is through social justice— through abolition of (private and state) capitalism with its inherent tendencies toward environmental degradation, through fairer distribution of resources, through the emancipation of women and the abandonment of patriarchal religions, and through the utilization of appropriate technologies to provide cheap, easy access to birth control and to provide a comfortable level of material wealth for everyone. 7

by Chaz Bufe

  • 1How presumptuous! How does Throp know what our ‘natural role” is? She treats the exercise of human intelligence, our power to shape our environment, which is a direct result of evolution, as if it were somehow “un”natural, as if using the attributes we’ve received from nature is somehow “un”natural.
  • 2The Politics of Food,” TV documentary.
  • 3Newman, of course, is not implying that “all” aspects of European industrialization were bene ficial. He’s merely noting that a rising standard of living was instrumental in lowering the birth rate.
  • 4The question of how development strategies in the Third World can and should differ from the models provided by the already developed capitalist and ‘communist” states is complex. But in general, one can say that adoption of the following measures would help developing societies to avoid the hideous environmental problems plaguing the industrialized nations: a) Abolition of the profit motive, with its inherent tendency toward environmental destruc tion; b) Abolition of coercive authority, with its tendency toward bureaucratization and industrial monument building; c) Self-management of agri culture and industry by those working in them. Workers generally live near to their workplaces, are likely to be aware of work-related environmental problems, and are very likely to do something to remedy them when they are aware of problems—workers are smart enough not to foul their own nests.
  • 5“Miss Ann Thropy,” Earth First! Dec. 22, 1987.
  • 6For a closer look at the “deep ecology” ideology underlying the authoritarian, inhumane proposals advanced by Foreman, Abbey, et al, I would highly recommend Murray Bookchin’s article, “Social Ecology Versus ‘Deep Ecology’,” in the Summer 1987 issue of Green Perspectives, ($2 should cover it) from Green Perspectives, POB 111, Burlington, VT 05402.
  • 7Of course I am not implying that “all” techno logies are desirable—far from it. “Technology” is not a monolith. It is composed of a great number of separate technologies, all with different environmental and social effects. Some are beneficial, such as medical and sewage disposal technologies; some are neutral (they lend themselves to both socially useful and socially damaging uses), an example being radio communications technology, which can be used to dispatch ambulances or for political surveillance; and some technologies, such as nuclear technology, are inherently destructive. Even these classifications are gross simplifications, though, as even the most useful technology will have some negative effects; and even the worst technology might have some beneficial aspects. Blind rejection of “technology” is idiotic.